Chapter no 51 – The Professor

All the Light We Cannot See

Etienne is reading Darwin to Marie-Laure when he stops midsyllable. “Uncle?”

He breathes nervously, out of pursed lips, as if blowing on a spoonful of hot soup. He whispers, “Someone’s here.”

Marie-Laure can hear nothing. No footfalls, no knocks. Madame Manec whisks a broom across the landing one floor up. Etienne hands her the book. She can hear him unplug a radio, then tangle himself in its cords. “Uncle?” she says again, but he is leaving his study, floundering downstairs—are they in danger?—and she follows him to the kitchen, where she can hear him laboring to slide the kitchen table out of the way. He pulls up a ring in the center of the floor. Beneath a hatch waits a square hole out of which washes a damp, frightening smell. “One step

down, hurry now.”

Is this a cellar? What has her uncle seen? She has set one foot on the top rung of a ladder when the blocky shoes of Madame Manec come clomping into the kitchen. “Really, Master Etienne, please!”

Etienne’s voice from below: “I heard something. Someone.” “You are frightening her. It is nothing, Marie-Laure. Come now.”

Marie-Laure backs out. Below her, her great-uncle whispers nursery rhymes to himself.

“I can sit with him for a bit, Madame. Maybe we could read some more of our book, Uncle?”

The cellar, she gathers, is merely a dank hole in the ground. They sit awhile on a rolled carpet with the trapdoor open and listen to Madame Manec hum as she makes tea in the kitchen above them. Etienne trembles lightly beside her.

“Did you know,” says Marie-Laure, “that the chance of being hit by lightning is one in one million? Dr. Geffard taught me that.”

“In one year or in one lifetime?” “I’m not sure.”

“You should have asked.”

Again those quick, pursed exhalations. As though his whole body urges him to flee.

“What happens if you go outside, Uncle?”

“I get uneasy.” His voice is almost inaudible. “But what makes you uneasy?”

“Being outside.” “What part?” “Big spaces.”

“Not all spaces are big. Your street is not that big, is it?” “Not as big as the streets you are used to.”

“You like eggs and figs. And tomatoes. They were in our lunch. They grow outside.”

He laughs softly. “Of course they do.” “Don’t you miss the world?”

He is quiet; so is she. Both ride spirals of memory.

“I have the whole world here,” he says, and taps the cover of Darwin. “And in my radios. Right at my fingertips.”

Her uncle seems almost a child, monastic in the modesty of his needs and wholly independent of any sort of temporal obligations. And yet she can tell he is visited by fears so immense, so multiple, that she can almost feel the terror pulsing inside him. As though some beast breathes all the time at the windowpanes of his mind.

“Could you read some more, please?” she asks, and Etienne opens the book and whispers, “Delight itself is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself into a Brazilian forest . . .”

After a few paragraphs, Marie-Laure says without preamble, “Tell me about that bedroom upstairs. Across from the one I sleep in.”

He stops. Again his quick, nervous breaths.

“There’s a little door at the back of it,” she says, “but it’s locked.

What’s through there?”

He is silent for long enough that she worries she has upset him. But then he stands, and his knees crack like twigs.

“Are you getting one of your headaches, Uncle?” “Come with me.”

They wind all the way up the stairs. On the sixth-floor landing, they turn left, and he pushes open the door to what was once her grandfather’s room. She has already run her hands over its contents many times: a

wooden oar nailed to a wall, a window dressed with long curtains. Single bed. Model ship on a shelf. At the back stands a wardrobe so large, she cannot reach its top nor stretch her arms wide enough to touch both sides at once.

“These are his things?”

Etienne unlatches the little door beside the wardrobe. “Go on.”

She gropes through. Dry, confined heat. Mice scuttle. Her fingers find a ladder.

“It leads to the garret. It’s not high.”

Seven rungs. At the top, she stands; she has the sense of a long slope-walled space pressed beneath the gable of the roof. The peak of the ceiling is just taller than she is.

Etienne climbs up behind her and takes her hand. Her feet find cables on the floor. They snake between dusty boxes, overwhelm a sawhorse; he leads her through a thicket of them to what feels like an upholstered piano bench at the far end, and helps her sit.

“This is the attic. That’s the chimney in front of us. Put your hands on the table; there you are.” Metal boxes cover the tabletop: tubes, coils, switches, meters, at least one gramophone. This whole part of the attic, she realizes, is some sort of machine. The sun bakes the slates above their heads. Etienne secures a headset over Marie-Laure’s ears. Through the headphones, she can hear him turn a crank, switch on something, and then, as if positioned directly in the center of her head, a piano plays a sweet, simple song.

The song fades, and a staticky voice says, Consider a single piece glowing in your family’s stove. See it, children? That chunk of coal was once a green plant, a fern or reed that lived one million years ago, or maybe two million, or maybe one hundred million . . .

After a little while, the voice gives way to the piano again. Her uncle pulls off the headset. “As a boy,” he says, “my brother was good at everything, but his voice was what people commented on most. The nuns at St. Vincent’s wanted to build choirs around it. We had a dream together, Henri and I, to make recordings and sell them. He had the voice and I had the brains and back then everyone wanted gramophones. And hardly anyone was making programs for children. So we contacted a recording company in Paris, and they expressed interest, and I wrote ten different scripts about science, and Henri rehearsed them, and finally we

started recording. Your father was just a boy, but he would come around to listen. It was one of the happiest times of my life.”

“Then there was the war.”

“We became signalmen. Our job, mine and your grandfather’s, was to knit telegraph wires from command positions at the rear to field officers at the front. Most nights the enemy would shoot pistol flares called ‘very lights’ over the trenches, short-lived stars suspended in the air from parachutes, meant to illuminate possible targets for snipers. Every soldier within reach of the glare would freeze while it lasted. Some hours, eighty or ninety of these flares would go off, one after another, and the night would turn stark and strange in that magnesium glow. It would be so quiet, the only sound the fizzling of the flares, and then you’d hear the whistle of a sniper’s bullet streak out of the darkness and bury itself in the mud. We would stay as close together as we could. But I’d become paralyzed sometimes; I could not move any part of my body, not even my fingers. Not even my eyelids. Henri would stay right beside me and whisper those scripts, the ones we recorded. Sometimes all night. Over and over. As though weaving some kind of protective screen around us. Until morning came.”

“But he died.” “And I did not.”

This, she realizes, is the basis of his fear, all fear. That a light you are powerless to stop will turn on you and usher a bullet to its mark.

“Who built all of this, Uncle? This machine?” “I did. After the war. Took me years.”

“How does it work?”

“It’s a radio transmitter. This switch here”—he guides her hand to it

—“powers up the microphone, and this one runs the phonograph. Here’s the premodulation amplifier, and these are the vacuum tubes, and these are the coils. The antenna telescopes up along the chimney. Twelve meters. Can you feel the lever? Think of energy as a wave and the transmitter as sending out smooth cycles of those waves. Your voice creates a disruption in those cycles . . .”

She stops listening. It’s dusty and confusing and mesmerizing all at once. How old must all this be? Ten years? Twenty? “What did you transmit?”

“The recordings of my brother. The gramophone company in Paris wasn’t interested anymore, but every night I played the ten recordings

we’d made, until most of them were worn out. And his song.” “The piano?”

“Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune.’” He touches a metal cylinder with a sphere stuck on top. “I’d just tuck the microphone into the bell of the gramophone, and voilà.”

She leans over the microphone, says, “Hello out there.” He laughs his feathery laugh. “Did it ever reach any children?” she asks.

“I don’t know.”

“How far can it transmit, Uncle?” “Far.”

“To England?” “Easily.”

“To Paris?”

“Yes. But I wasn’t trying to reach England. Or Paris. I thought that if I made the broadcast powerful enough, my brother would hear me. That I could bring him some peace, protect him as he had always protected me.”

“You’d play your brother’s own voice to him? After he died?” “And Debussy.”

“Did he ever talk back?”

The attic ticks. What ghosts sidle along the walls right now, trying to overhear? She can almost taste her great-uncle’s fright in the air.

“No,” he says. “He never did.”

To My Dear Sister Jutta—


Some of the boys whisper that Dr. Hauptmann is connected to very powerful ministers. He won’t answer


. But he wants me to assist him all the time! I go to his workshop in the evenings and he sets me to work on circuits for a radio he is testing. Trigonometry too. He says to be as creative as I can; he says creativity fuels the Reich. He has this big upperclassman, they call him the Giant, stand over me with a stopwatch to test how fast I can calculate. Triangles triangles triangles. I probably do fifty calculations a night. They don’t tell me why. You would not believe the copper wire here; they have


. Everyone gets out of the way

when the Giant comes through.

Dr. Hauptmann says we can do anything, build anything. He says the führer has collected scientists to help him control the weather. He says the führer will develop a rocket that can reach Japan. He says the führer will build a city on the moon.

To My Dear Sister Jutta—

Today in field exercises the commandant told us about Reiner Schicker. He was a young corporal and his captain needed someone to go behind enemy lines to map their defenses. The captain asked for volunteers and Reiner Schicker was the only one who stood up. But the next day Reiner Schicker got caught. The very next day! The Poles captured him and tortured him with electricity. They gave him so much electricity that his brain liquefied, said the commandant, but before they did, Reiner Schicker said something amazing. He said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Everyone says there is a great test coming. A test harder than all the other tests.

Frederick says that story about Reiner Schicker is


Just being around the Giant—his name is Frank Volkheimer—means the other boys treat me with respect. I come up only to his waist practically. He seems a man, not a boy. He

possesses the loyalty of Reiner Schicker. In his hands and heart and bones. Please tell Frau Elena I am eating lots here but that no one makes flour cakes like hers or at all really. Tell little Siegfried to look lively. I think of you every day. Sieg heil.

To My Dear Sister Jutta—


Yesterday was Sunday and for field exercises we went into the forest. Most hunters are at the front so the woods are full of marten and deer. The other boys sat in the blinds and talked about magnificent victories and how soon we will cross the Channel and destroy the and Dr.

Hauptmann’s dogs came back with three rabbits one for each but Frederick, he came back with about a thousand berries in his shirt and his sleeves were ripped from the brambles and his binocular bag was torn open and I said, You’re going to catch hell and he looked down at his clothes like he’d never seen them before!

Frederick knows all the birds just by hearing them. Above the lake we heard skylarks and lapwings and plovers and a harrier hen and probably ten others I’ve forgotten. You would like Frederick I think. He sees what other people don’t. Hope your cough is better and Frau Elena’s too. Sieg heil.

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